Defend or Die

I don’t know what I expected here, but even if I had bothered myself to read the back cover I’m not sure it would have helped me. This is a book about a prison camp! Prison camp! And oh my god, so gory. It’s good, don’t worry, but…maybe don’t read this around a mealtime.

Defend Or Die: The Siege of Hong Kong, Jack Finnigan, Hong Kong, 1941¸Gillian Chan, 2015.

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I need to stop thinking that the I Am Canada books are all boring, because this was a lot of things, but boring is not on that list. Gripping, yes. Disgusting, yes (in places). Gory, oh my lands, yes. Incredibly sad, yes. But boring, not so much. I mean, you’d probably get more out of this book if you had a passing familiarity with the role Hong Kong played during the Second World War, but hey, even if you don’t, still good!

If you happen to have a 12-year-old boy handy who’s a reluctant reader but easily lured by some gory war stories, this is the book you’ll want to give him. As I mentioned, not a great idea if you have a weak stomach, or you just don’t want to read about lots and lots and lots of violence. And death. And violent death. This is going to be your only warning.

This is one of those books telling one story broken up into two chunks—current, and how we got here. Jack is in a prison camp on Hong Kong Island by January of 1942, and they’re already being starved and forced to go out on work parties and generally miserable. Then we flash back to October of the previous year when Jack is shipping out from his home in Toronto after finishing his basic training. And apparently there’s some bad blood there between him and his girlfriend’s family. I’m sensing a star-crossed-lovers type thing, since his girlfriend Alice is apparently a very sweet girl and Jack beat up her brother at one point. But Alice comes to see him off on the train, but Jack’s brother stops her, and they don’t get to say goodbye to each other after all. This is literally the most cheerful thing that happens in the entire book, so if you want to back out now, this is your warning.

Jack’s best friend from basic training, Ike, is in the prison camp with him too, as is his worst enemy, Sergeant Oldham, who has had it in for Jack since day one. They’re packed off to the west coast, and they don’t know where they’re going—only that it’s somewhere warm, because they get their tropical kit. It’s (obviously) going to be Hong Kong, and the trip across the ocean is long and miserable (although after reading Sink and Destroy I can’t find it in my heart to feel too sorry for Jack’s complaints that the food sucks). And at first, Hong Kong is amazing. They can afford just about anything, including straight-up servants. So basically Jack and Ike spend their time seeing the sights and doing a little bit of soldiering every now and then, but mostly just getting drunk and fighting with Killer, their least-favourite coworker.

Everything goes terribly wrong for them on December 7th, which is when the Japanese launch their attack on Hawaii and the rest of the Pacific. Hong Kong gets bombed quite badly and the Japanese begin to invade Kowloon and the tempo picks up. They’re constantly under air raids until the mainland falls and they’re completely cut off. They’re out one evening and get a direct shell hit, and no one is hurt except Killer—Jack’s nemesis—who claims that he had two fingers cut off by shrapnel, when he actually cut them off himself to get out of that place. Jack thinks that Oldham is totally taken in by this (incredibly obvious) ruse, but he’s not, of course. He’s just not going to make that poor kid’s life any worse.

The real Japanese invasion is just eleven days after Pearl Harbor, on the 18th, and then shit starts getting pretty real. Suddenly they’re fighting their way through the jungle—and real jungle, too—to retake hills and eliminate Japanese machine-gun nests. It goes pretty terribly, actually, and at one point they’re trapped between the Japanese and a ditch of water they can’t cross. “In my pocket I had a pink piece of paper that the enemy had dropped in the thousands the day before. It was in English and promised that if you handed it to one of their soldiers they would not harm you when you surrendered. I pulled it out, wondering if I would have to use it, if it was of any use. There had been rumours that two guys had tried this, laid down their rifles, held out the paper and been bayoneted on the spot.” Oh dear.

They make it through that one by the skin of their teeth, but their buddy Paddy is wounded very badly in the leg. They have to basically drag him to the medics, and he just barely makes it, but they all do.

So while Jack is recapping all of this, he’s going back and forth between this and the six months he’s spent in the prison camp thus far—now it’s July and there’s been a breakout, so everyone who’s left is getting the hammer. Ike has been ill more or less the entire time they’ve been there, with dysentery and all kinds of everything else, and while they’re standing in a line one of the Japanese guards starts beating him with a rifle butt, and Jack takes the beating for Ike as best he can and gets a terrible concussion for his troubles. He winds up in the hospital and so does Oldham, because Oldham pulled the guard off Jack. And to make everything worse, one of the Japanese guards is actually Canadian—Canadian by birth but Japanese by ethnicity, who grew up in Kamloops and was bullied mercilessly as a child before returning to Japan and becoming even more virulently anti-Canadian than the Japanese guards who were from Japan in the first place. He does not like the Canadians, to put it in the mildest of all possible terms, and takes a special interest in Jack, because of course he does. Then the camp gets diphtheria, especially Jack, and they’re only saved by a Japanese doctor who’s been smuggling in serum—well, the doctor and Oldham, who voluntary goes to the hospital to help nurse all of his men.

But back real quick to Christmastime, where they’re sent to take the hill again that they failed to take before. Now it’s actual hand-to-hand combat, and Jack manages to rescue his lieutenant just in the nick of time. “I twisted round, trying to bring my bayonet into position to spear the lieutenant’s attacker—one of their officers—but I was too late. He pulled his pistol free from his holster and blasted Lieutenant Mason in the face. The lieutenant flopped down, his face a ruined mask of blood and bone. I rammed my bayonet as hard as I could into the Japanese officer’s throat, twisting it for maximum damage. I wanted him dead.”

I’m going to need a minute to go vomit.

By this time it’s Christmas 1942, and the camp receives Red Cross parcels, which is possibly the best Christmas gift any of them have ever received in their whole lives. Unfortunately they all make themselves incredibly sick by gorging on the rich food (and by “gorging” I mean, of course, “eating one chocolate bar after living off watery rice porridge for nearly a year”) before figuring that they need to ration and pool their food.

Back to Christmas 1941 real quick, where they get a night of actual rest in the officers’ mess at the fort. Unfortunately, immediately afterwards they’re ordered to retake some bungalows nearby across a skirmish line, which they actually manage to do. But just as they’ve done so they receive word that the Japanese have broken through and the Canadians are all ordered to retreat. They’re losing men left and right, but Jack and Ike and Oldham and a few others all manage to make it out.

That is, until that evening, when the word comes through that Hong Kong has officially been lost and the governor has surrendered. Oldham orders all of his men to get cleaned up and have a good night’s sleep, and amazingly, they do. And then they wait.

“’Sarge,’ I said, ‘I’m scared of what’s coming next and whether I can get through it.’ ‘We’re all scared, Jack, but you can’t show it. As to getting through this, I got you through the fighting, didn’t I, boyo? So, I promise I’ll get you through this.’”

In January of 1943, Jack and a few others are packed up and sent to Japan. Ike is staying behind, and Jack leaves his book with him for safekeeping.

The epilogue in this one is really long, but Jack makes it through the war. He learns that his family didn’t hear a word from him until his name turned up on a POW list, but he never got a single one of their letters or packages. Jack spends the entire rest of the war in a Japanese coal mine before he’s liberated by the Americans and returned to a hospital in the Phillipines, who get word back to his family that he’s alive. He doesn’t get back to Canada until December 1945, and even then he has to spend a lot of time in hospital before he’s allowed to go home. “I was down to 90 pounds when we were liberated—a shambling skeleton dressed in rags. I’m back up some, but I can’t eat any more, not like I used to. Too much food makes me sick. My scars are visible too, hinting at things that most polite people would shy away from mentioning.” Oldham just barely makes it, too, and his daughter writes to Jack saying that he’s never going to be able to work again like he did before the war.

But Alice did wait for him, all that time, which is so sweet I can hardly stand it. Jack goes to Ike’s family’s deli like he always promised Ike he would, to tell them all about the time they spent together there. Ike died in hospital not too very long after Jack was sent to Japan, and Paddy made sure that Jack’s notebook was packaged up and sent to Ike’s family for safekeeping.

Ike’s father says to Jack “’Promise me this too. That you will not be broken by this, no matter how much it hurts. That you will live as good a life as you can. I would have asked this of my son and I am asking it of you!’ I nodded, and that was enough.”

Rating: A. Well, this was equal parts fantastic and awful. It’s funny, because I didn’t particularly enjoy Gillian Chan’s Dear America novel, An Ocean Apart, but I loved this one. It was horrifying, yes, and sad, and gross, but extraordinarily well-written. And beautiful, which is an odd thing to say about such a gory book, but there are some lovely turns of phrase here. And the characters are great, too—Jack and Ike and Oldham are all so very human. I don’t think there’s anything about this book that I didn’t enjoy except maybe a persistent fascination with lavatory details, but I imagine that would hold a lot more significance if you were in a prisoner of war camp and had dysentery all the time. And would probably be much more interesting if you were a 13-year-old boy, i.e., the actual target audience of this book, instead of me. All in all, read this one.

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